Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Meditation on Psalm 131

Psalm 131 
131 Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever.

 

 

The psalmist does not assume or pretend to high knowledge, but has humbled his soul like a child weaned from its mother.
His relationship with God is one of patience and waiting.  He is not nursing at the breast of God – not taking in all and satisfied with warmth and floating in fullness.  No.  That may have been his or her experience at one time – maybe when faith was first kindled.  But now he has learned to be content and that all will come in time.  This is the Christian life.  We live in tension between what is promised and desired, on the one hand, and what has been already given on the other.  What life teaches us is to have patience and wait as a weaned child waits for the satisfaction of its needs.

 

But we must also not lose the hope for the perfect fulfillment – the satisfaction of heart’s desire.

The Spiritual Is The Real

spiritual

In light of Pastor Joel’s letter that mentions the fact that many people attend First Baptist regularly and for long periods of time without joining the church, we’ve spent some time in the last few weeks talking about the whole idea of church membership.

We’ve been looking at the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians and Romans 12: 5 that emphasize the idea – no, not the idea, the fact – that he who is in Christ is a member of the church.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, that is, into His body, which is the church.  We considered whether the formal registration of that membership in the local body – in our case, First Baptist Church – might be seen the same way we see Baptism – as an outward sign or recognition of an inner, spiritual reality.

We spoke of our inclusion in Christ’s body and then we spoke of the idea of the metaphysical as something higher and greater and even more real than the physical.  That is, the spiritual is not less real or substantial than the physical, it is more so.

I said that the Bible teaches that there is a spiritual world that is greater and more real than the physical world that we can see, hear and touch.  I didn’t consider that a controversial statement, but I was nonetheless asked to find passages in the Bible that supported this idea.  I couldn’t come up with anything there on the spot.

But a couple of hours of reflection suggest that we might find the most direct support for this idea in the story of Elisha and his servant.  [all at II Kings 6: 13-21] They find themselves surrounded by powerful enemies and Elisha’s servant is about to lose heart.  Elisha tells his servant not to be worried:

“Don’t be afraid,” Elisha answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(Remember, right then, as far as the physical eye could see, it was only Elisha and his servant, surrounded by the king’s “horses and chariots and a strong force.”)

In this context, Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened “so that he may see.”

Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

We may find further support in the words of our Lord on the night of His arrest.  When the Roman soldiers approach, Peter draws his sword and lops off the ear of one of the members of the arresting party.  Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword.  This is supposed to be happening, He says, that all may be fulfilled.  Besides, He says,  “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” [Matt 26: 53]

These are in fact fine examples of the reality of the spiritual world and evidence that the world we cannot normally see is more real and more powerful than the physical world around us and the powers that have sway in it.  But all of this is just spooning water from the ocean.  The whole of the Bible, the whole of the Christian faith,  is about the miraculous – about the intervention of the spiritual world into this mundane world of ours.  Paul is bold to tell us that the whole of the Christian faith turns on a supernatural event.  If there is no resurrection – “if Christ is not raised from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”  and we are “of all men most miserable.”

If we try to separate Christianity from the miraculous, from the idea that there is a spiritual world that is greater than the physical and impinges on and invades the physical, we have nothing left.

Membership

so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Romans 12:5 English Standard Version (ESV)

 

 

As we think of the meaning of church membership, we should look closely at what the Scriptures say about it.  They say plenty, and – as is so often the case – they say things that might be counter to what we thought before.  CS Lewis, in his address to the Society of Saint Alban and St. Sergius, entitled “Membership,” informs us that the Greek word that is translated to “members” in our English bibles is actually a word “of Christian origin.”  And – as is also often the case – the word, as its usage has evolved over these two millenia – has come to be understood to mean something quite different from what it originally meant.

Nowadays we say “members of a class” to indicate how individuals are alike.  That is, a “class” is defined by a particular shared characteristic.  We have a class of men who are over six-feet tall.  These men, in our modern usage, are “members” precisely because of the characteristic that they share.  In the ancient, Biblical usage, individuals are “members one of another” for exactly the opposite reason.  They are members because they differ, they vary.  They are parts – differing and complimentary parts – of a body.

Slow Train Comin’

From Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option:

 

The more serious and pressing question has to do with gay rights, marriage, and religious liberty. Christians must understand that Obergefell is a popular decision that is not going to be overturned. If it were, most states would respond by passing gay marriage legislation instantly. This is a settled issue, politically. We are now fighting for our right to be left alone to run our institutions (especially Christian colleges and schools) as we see fit. This is a fight that most local congregations have chosen to ignore. It is an enormously important fight — but it’s one that we are not likely to win. I was talking the other day to two conservative Christian activists deeply involved in this political struggle, and they say prospects for our side grow ever dimmer. Republican lawmakers are highly susceptible to big business pressure, and terrified of being called bigots. And most Christians are saying nothing, either because they don’t know what’s happening, don’t care about it, or are too intimidated by accusations of bigotry.From a Benedict Option point of view, we conservative Christians simply must start thinking about and planning for the day when we lose these political and legal fights. The culture is moving swiftly against us. Look at the polling on US Christians and their beliefs. We cannot even keep our young people within  Christian orthodoxy. We are fast moving into a world in which Christian orthodoxy will be seen legally and culturally as equivalent to racism. This will have far-reaching implications for the practice of Biblically orthodox forms of Christianity in America.

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I believe that a lot of conservative Christians are desperately attempting to fight the last war, because the last war was one in which we had a chance of winning. To change the metaphor, increasingly our side is like sending the Polish cavalry out to face the Panzer blitzkrieg. All the valor and courage in the world cannot compete against the kind of political, economic, and cultural firepower being thrown at us — especially when the churches have grown so feeble in their witness.

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The churches have grown so feeble in their witness because they have assimilated modernity to an astonishing degree. This is why the Benedict Option is so badly needed among Christians: because it champions the traditional Christian model of the human person, and advocates for practices that incarnate it within our own communities.

(emphasis added)